Surviving and thriving in virtual worlds

22 Jun 2010

The first wave of virtualisation was about server consolidation, but there are many more benefits to be reaped from a technology that addresses the business challenges of the day. IAN CAMPBELL talks to IT professionals that have found interesting ways to harness its power.

Server consolidation and cost-cutting in the data centre are two IT imperatives for organisations trying to navigate their way out of a recession. Both are synonymous with virtualisation which became more than a buzz word and part of a recipe for strategic IT initiatives that even financial controllers appreciate. Take 10 servers, reduce them to one while running the same number of applications, saving on power and cooling costs in the process.

Gerard Joyce provides an interesting insight into this first wave of deployment. Five years ago, he was co-ordinator of IT in Chorus, the cable TV company that was one of the earliest adopters of virtualisation in Ireland. The driver was a hardware refresh. Old servers were coming to the end of their life and the company had to make a decision on whether to upgrade or virtualise.

Future Human

“We were running 29 servers at the time so we had the option of buying replacements or go virtual with VMware and fewer, more powerful servers. In the end we had the budget for one virtual server and consolidated down to 20,” said Joyce. 

The strategy was about cutting costs but there was another agenda for Joyce. The company needed to improve its business continuity plans. “The disaster recovery time for our email system alone was around three days which just wasn’t acceptable,” he said. “We saw virtualisation as a way of killing two birds with one stone.”

While the benefits were achieved, Joyce warns that the initial spend was more than they had expected. As well as training and consultancy costs, there was a requirement for a SAN (Storage Area Network) infrastructure. “We had 233 terabytes of data that wouldn’t fit into the server box so we had to have an external piece of hardware. You can’t put in a virtual solution without considering your storage.”

With VMware virtual servers up and running, the flexibility of the solution would significantly improve IT management. It facilitates a more standardised environment where server images are configured to a template. “In companies running 10 applications on 10 servers you can bet that that no two are configured the same. And if the IT guy who knows how one works goes on holiday, there’s a problem if it goes down,” said Joyce.

At Chorus, he insisted on creating standard templates. “Virtualisation demands better IT governance because it forces you to think about policies and server set-ups. You get a lot more consistency between systems which has to be a good thing.”

About applications

Some applications, however, fall foul of uniformity. They may be too closely coupled with the hardware to virtualise and have to be retired. “Not all applications can be put in a virtualised environment but it is improving all the time,” said Joyce.

Joyce is now chief technology officer with Wars Ltd, a company that specialises in disaster recovery. The learning curve with Chorus has proved useful because a number of his clients use virtualisation as part of their solution.

Businesses can be back up and running within 24 hours, some in less than two hours, because they are connected to the Wars data centre which pushes out the recovered image to the desktops.  Because it is virtual it is also easy to test. “With VMware Site Recovery Manager you can programme the sequence of recovery and test it without affecting production systems,” said Joyce. “We have tested full switchovers, recovering all servers in three hours. In the past it would have taken days and they wouldn’t all be recovered at once.”

The virtual environment also brings more resilience and redundancy. If an application goes down it can be booted up from another machine without the end user noticing, a seamless process that is heavily automated and therefore easy to manage. 

Virtual desktops

Consolidating servers in a virtual data centre is now ubiquitous. The drive to virtualise desktops, however, is only starting to gain traction. According to Citrix, which has 10 corporate customers with 10,000 seats in production, there is a huge amount of interest. By default, having a virtual desktop enables employees to work from home or remotely, and it facilitates easier disaster recovery which ensures business continuity. Patrick Irwin, senior product marketing manager at Citrix, said that organisations have to get their IT estate in order before they move to desktop virtualisation. “They have to audit their applications. Companies often find there are hundreds more running than they knew about and they have to shepherd that number down,” he said.

“Depending on the approach you take you do need to invest in data centre infrastructure and you need to be skilled in virtualisation. Fortunately, server virtualisation has been around for some time and the skill sets are out there. Finding people isn’t a problem.”

Testing times

For Mark Greville, lead architect for the Merrill Lynch Research, Development and Innovation Centre in Dublin, virtualisation had another role to play. The technology helps test and development teams who use virtual machines to create and test a wide variety of scenarios in safe and self-contained environments. A single server can host machine configurations that can be built and taken down in hours rather than days.

“We have seen two key benefits to date,” said Greville. “The first is that when new projects come along we have been able to provision their development much faster. And the second is that we are able to get at data more quickly.”

Virtualisation has also become a cornerstone for cloud computing, enabling organisations to scale up and down, adding more processing power to meet peaks in the business cycle.

Dediserve and virtualisation

Aidan McCarron is managing director of Dediserve, a cloud-based service provider with a business model that is predicated on virtualisation. His customers utilise his processing power, taken from three cabinets hosting up to 2,000 virtual servers in a Dublin data centre. “In the old days, it would have been equivalent to 30 or 40 racks full of servers. This company wouldn’t be here without virtualisation,” said McCarron.

Essentially, Dediserve takes the same economies of scale that benefit a single company with a virtualised data centre and aggregates it to multiple clients. “In the current climate people are looking to reduce IT costs and virtualisation helps them do that,” said McCarron.

With a virtualised platform, Dediserve customers determine how much RAM they want as well as their bandwidth needs, only paying for what is required. “In the traditional model you buy a server and you are locked in, no matter how much of the resources you are actually using,” said McCarron.

The company offers around a dozen applications, including some leading open source software. “We bypass the setup phase with a simple and universal service,” he said. “We give one-click installation on to a server.”

All the evidence would suggest that the potential for virtualisation is still being realised; not just for larger companies looking for new efficiencies, but for small firms who can turn to the cloud to relieve the burden of maintaining in-house IT systems.